The Trail Smoke Eaters look to de-fang a vaunted Vernon Vipers squad tonight at the Cominco Arena, and, at the same time, find an antidote for their prolonged losing streak.
The Smokies will need to neutralize a potent Vipers offence, much like they did the West Kelowna Warriors Monday. Despite a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss, Trail put in a good effort, leading the Warriors 3-1 with just one minute and 23 seconds to play in regulation.
“We played well enough to win,” said Smoke Eater coach Nick Deschenes. “But give Kelowna credit they pressed hard right to the end. There’s a certain way to play to win, and that’s what our group is learning, and the biggest thing is that we learn these lessons and we don’t just let them repeat themselves.”
Vernon has lost 2-of-3 games since a 6-3 victory over the Smoke Eaters in Vernon Dec. 13, including a 7-2 setback to the Powell River Kings in their last match Dec. 21. However, an extended Christmas break and a healthy line up, particularly with the return of Castlegar native Ryan Renz’s who missed 22 games with injury, should make the task even more daunting for the home team.
Yet, rather than putting an emphasis on defence, the Smokies are going on the offensive.
“Where we are at now is in attack mode, I like to call it,” said Deschenes. “We are going to push the pace against these teams. They may be expecting an easy game, and they’re expecting to score lots of goals, and this is where we are going to take that vulnerability and hopefully capitalize and shock some teams.”
The Vipers hold a two-point lead over the Warriors for second spot in the Interior division, and are five points back of division leaders Penticton. The snakes are led by Mike McNicholas, who sits in fourth place in BCHL scoring with 19-32-51, Demico Hannoun, and Mason Blacklock. The trio combined for six points in their last meeting with Trail all netting a goal and an assist.
The Smokies meanwhile have just three 20-year-old players remaining in their lineup in defenceman Braden Pears, leading scorer Travis Stephens, and goaltender Dustin Nikkel. Although the team can carry a maximum of five 20-year-olds, Deschenes says that it is unlikely the team will look for any over-age players before the Jan. 10 trade deadline, but rather enhance the opportunity of the remaining players.
“The benefit we can give our 20 year olds right now, being put in that leadership role, is the opportunity to play substantial minutes, which I think both of them appreciate, and to work with them and help promote them for their opportunities for next season,” said Deschenes.
The team is building for the future, having traded veterans like Curtis Toneff, Brendan Lamont, Cody Bardock, and Valik Chichkin for young skaters with potential. However, that lack of experience may have cost them on Monday.
Trail was less than 90 seconds away from ending a 12-game losing streak, but the Warriors nipped any celebration in the bud narrowing it to 3-2 with 1:23 to play then tying the game 26 seconds later, before winning it in overtime.
“The fact that we can compete for 60 minutes, and responding to the (13-5) loss in Chilliwack, there is a lot more optimism, I guess you can say. It’s a new year and we had a good crowd and good support; I think it was a good hockey game.”
Trail will look to right the ship tonight when they host the Vernon Vipers at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena. Trail will then travel to West Kelowna for a rematch with the Warriors on Saturday.